Dogs have long been recognised for their loyalty and companionship. Now there is a field of medical study that indicates dogs can also detect diseases based on scent alone.
The science behind the sniff
A British-based organisation is working on the idea that diseases have a specific scent which is excreted in urine or exhaled on the breath. This means that animals with a highly developed sense of smell can detect these conditions at an early stage, which can potentially improve the patient’s treatment and ultimate recovery.
Medical detection dogs can be trained as medical alert assistance dogs or as bio-detection dogs.
Medical alert assistance dogs can notice tiny changes in someone’s personal scent where these changes have been caused by a life-threatening health condition. Any changes alert the dog to the possibility of an approaching medical emergency. Currently, most of the medical alert assistance dogs work with people suffering from diabetes. However, they also help patients with Addison’s disease and others who suffer from severe allergic responses.
When the dogs notice subtle changes in blood sugar levels or other hormone-related scents that are falling or rising outside the normal range, the dogs can warn their owners, get external help and fetch vital medical supplies.
Bio-detection dogs, on the other hand, are trained to pick up the odour of chemicals found in the body when it is suffering from specific illnesses. It is likely that all diseases are associated with biochemical changes. Therefore, if these changes can be detected early, chances of a full and healthy recovery are higher.
Medical scientists, working together with animal behaviouralists, are training dogs to detect urological cancers such as prostate and bladder cancer, malaria, bacterial diseases and, more recently, even Parkinson’s disease in supplied samples of urine, breath or swabs.
The tip of the tale
You can read more about one of these studies – where a dog can detect cancer from urine samples – in the British Medical Journal here or visit the Medical Detection Dogs charity, which enjoys the patronage of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall.